Written by Diana Gabaldon and Ronald D. Moore
Directed by John Dahl
I have to be honest and say that when this series was first proposed, I didn’t have much confidence that they’d be able to capture the spirit of the series of books by Diana Gabaldon that I loved. I’m happy to say that I was very much mistaken in that reticence.
Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is a former World War II nurse, now trying to carve out a life for herself with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). They take a holiday together to Scotland, where he is tracing his family’s roots back through the generations with the help of a friend, the Rev. Wakefield (James Fleet). Claire and Frank have been separated for five years by the war. They arrive in Scotland just prior to the pagan festival of Samhain. Frank goes for a walk before returning to their room one evening and sees what appears to be a Highlander staring at the window of the Bed and Breakfast in which they are staying. When Frank confronts the “man” he disappears into thin air. He tells Claire he feels like he’s just seen a ghost.
They sneak off to observe the Celtic ritual at the standing stones of Craigh na Dun, a standing circle of stones not far from Inverness. Claire returns the next day, wanting another look at a plant she saw there. She hears a noise like the wind whipping through the stones and puts her hands up to one of them. She awakens on the ground. In a panic, she tries to find the car that should be nearby, but it’s not there. She begins to hear gunshots and spots what appear to be British soldiers. At first, she believes she accidentally stumbled onto a movie set. Live ammunition convinces her otherwise. She runs away and soon finds Frank by the side of a stream, only it’s not Frank. It’s the ancestor they had been reading about the day before.
One of the men the soldiers were after helps her escape and brings her to the Highlanders’ hideout. She tends to one of their wounded, a young man named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They bring her to the castle grounds she toured with Frank just a few days before, only it is not in ruins as she saw it previously.
Claire is the narrator of the story, so we experience what is happening to her through her own eyes and perceptions. This helps with filling in some of the details as to what is happening. It also makes the story easier to follow. She’s a fish out of water, but in many ways, Claire is the perfect person to go back in time two hundred years. She grew up with her Uncle Lamb, who was an archaeologist, and learned more about “roughing” it than she would have in a proper English school. Being a nurse awakened her interest in botany and using plants medicinally. This will all feed into her being able to hold her own in a society much different from whence she came.
The acting is great, especially this early in the series where there wasn’t as much familiarity with the characters. Balfe hadn’t done much acting before, but she is a natural. I’ve seen her in several roles now and she is convincing no matter what she’s dropped into. Tobias Menzies is great as both Frank Randall and his ancestor, Jack Randall. During this time he was also involved with Game of Thrones and I really thought he deserved an award for playing three such different characters in three such different settings. He cool and assured as Frank Randall who worked for British Intelligence during the war, doing what he had to do even if it meant sending men to their death. He’s cold, calculating, and opportunistic as the British soldier.
The focus of this first episode is really showing the backstory for Claire, so most of the scenes are about her and Frank rather than her and Jamie. She meets him fairly quickly after traveling through time. If there was a role Sam Heughan was born to play, it’s Jamie Fraser, although the first episode doesn’t show that as much. It will be coming, though, and this two-hour premiere gives just a glimpse of his abilities. The only drawback is that he’s much older than Jamie was supposed to be. Later on, that won’t matter, but here he does not look like a man in his early 20s. Balfe is also a bit older than Claire, although she doesn’t show it. For some reason to me, in the early days of watching Heughan, it stands out.
The scenes of the horrors Claire sees as a nurse during the war are tastefully done. There’s enough shown that I could see how awful and traumatizing it could be. At the same time, it wasn’t gratuitous. This was M*A*S*H on steroids. War is hell. and these scenes let us know how strong Claire really is. She is no wilting violet or damsel in distress.
This was a fine premiere for the show that introduced many recurring characters as well as the leads. It sets up the story in a way that’s easy to follow. The cinematography in Scotland is just stunning and a pleasure to watch. This is a series worth the investment of your time.